Edward Baird - A Very Still Life
Added on 12 May 2015
Not all great art comes from prolific artists. Edward Baird produced no more than 35 oil paintings during his lifetime. Owing to chronic ill health, (asthma), Baird spent nearly all of his life inspired by and working in his native town of Montrose. He died there in 1949 aged only 45.
Baird spent three and a half years studying at Glasgow School of Art. He met his great friend there, the Dundee painter James McIntosh Patrick, for whom he would later paint his great surrealist masterpiece, 'The Birth of Venus', (private collection), as a wedding present. Baird was an extremely slow meticulous worker who often returned to familiar motifs. The view of Montrose as seen from the hill behind Ferryden first appears in a student drawing in 1927. Baird's admiration for the early Flemish masters is clearly evident in his slightly flattened perspective of the rooftops and skyline of Montrose he sets against the Angus hills beyond. Baird later went on to develop his initial pencil drawing sketch which includes a complex composition of seven figures in the foreground in to a larger painting using tempura on wood.
Baird returned to the motif of 'Montrose from Ferryden' in 1940, in a small oil on canvas landscape which I last viewed in Aberdeen Art Gallery. This version does not include figures but focusses solely on the view of Montrose under a dusting of snow as seen on a clear winter's night. As ever Baird renders the scene with meticulous care, the view of the houses, tenements and church spires which make up the town centre are defined in south west moonlight. Baird's controlled use of paint when recording the built environment shows a clear deference to Jan van Eyck's painting of 'The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin', which hangs in the Musée de Louvre. Van Eyck was a diplomat as well as a painter to the court, Philip the Grand Duke of Burgundy.
Van Eyck paints a complex aerial composition of the buildings and spires of the city of Ghent, as a backdrop to a private moment of devotion between an immensely powerful mediaeval magnate and the Virgin and Child. For van Eyck the complexity of the landscape he paints mirrors the complex political meanings of the meeting of the figures in the foreground. Rolin had such a fearsome reputation as the 'Iron Chancellor of Flanders' that he demanded that van Eyck paint out a large money bag he had painted over his left shoulder - should he be seen as tight or mean. In comparison Baird's view of Montrose painted in 1940 is quiet and still, yet the town and its inhabitants are safe indoors locked in winter's night time chilly glare. Baird adds to the effect of aerial perspective by adding four grey clouds floating in the night sky. To my mind this small painting is the perfect stage set for a more intriguing drama. The hills on the far side of the Montrose Basin have been left curiously unpainted, only delicate dark lines suggest hedge lines against a pale cream snowscape.
I think Baird saw the act of painting rather like pondering a game of chess, see his portrait of Walter Graham, 1936, at McManus Gallery, Dundee, http://www.mcmanus.co.uk/, search 'Baird'. In 1942 Baird returned to his Ferryden view of Montrose for a third time to create what I think is his undeniable masterpiece, 'Unidentified Aircraft', which can be seen at Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, and on-line. The landscape composition of 1940 is carefully redrawn on a slightly larger scale showing more detail of the east end of the town. The same four clouds hang in the clear night sky only now more luminous. More snow has fallen over the entire landscape. Only the copses of trees in the distance and the steel grey of the sea and blocks of coloured walls in the town break this symphony of white and delicate grey. Once more the atmosphere in this scene can be snapped like an icicle, the clarity of vision is so razor sharp to the eye.
What makes 'Unidentified Aircraft' such an arresting image is Baird's decision to place three cropped upturned male faces at the bottom of the canvas calmly looking up into the night sky. Like Van Eyck's painting a right hand is raised skywards perhaps pointing at something in the sky. The three young men are not dressed for such a cold night. But in many ways this doesn't matter - Baird had been very influenced by the work of the Surrealist's in the 1930's. Whereas Baird's 1934 painting 'Birth of Venus' might owe a debt to the work of Edward Wadsworth, I would suggest that in 'Unidentified Aircraft' Baird has created a unique vision which forces the viewer to imagine a drama out with the picture - a truly original statement which is well worth having a look at.
First posted, Alan Watson, 2012.